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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Shevardnadze Travels to Tense Pankisi

ReutersShevardnadze speaking Tuesday with Chechen refugees in Duisi in the Pankisi Gorge.
MATAANI, Georgia -- Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze traveled Tuesday to the tense Pankisi Gorge to buoy the spirits of nervous local residents and government troops sweeping the area for militants from neighboring Chechnya, and used the high-profile visit to renew harsh criticism of Moscow's alleged aggression.

Shevardnadze attended a funeral ceremony for Guram Otiashvili, a 67-year old local resident who died in what Georgian officials said was a Russian air raid on the area Friday. Russian military officials denied launching the raid, which injured seven others, and the Georgian Foreign Ministry has proposed a joint investigation.

"The Russian bombing of Georgian villages has broken all limits," Shevardnadze told about 1,000 local residents gathered outside a small church in the village of Mataani at the mouth of the Pankisi Gorge, where Otiashvili's body was laid out before the funeral. "The entire world feels your pain."

In New York on Monday, Georgia's ambassador to the United Nations, Revaz Adamia, accused Russia of aggression and asked the Security Council to assess Moscow's "flagrant violation" of international law and the UN Charter.

Tbilisi is locked in an angry standoff with Moscow, which accused Georgia of harboring Chechen rebels and urged it to let its troops into Pankisi, which borders Chechnya. While dismissing Russia's demand to let in its troops, Georgia invited U.S. military instructors to train its troops to fight militants.

Pankisi residents have long urged the Georgian government to end the wave of kidnappings and other crime that has spilled from the lawless gorge.

"Interior Ministry troops and Security Ministry units have been brought into Pankisi to free it from the criminals who have brought its people so much suffering," Shevardnadze told Mataani residents.

Some remained skeptical.

"The militants left when the interior troops came in, but they will return after the troops leave," one villager, Iosif Tugnelashvili, said.

Hundreds of troops who rolled into Pankisi on Sunday have set up checkpoints and run patrols but found no adversary yet. Before launching the operation, Shevardnadze's government warned militants to leave Pankisi.

Shevardnadze visited the village of Duisi, where he discussed details of the operation with top security officials and then talked to local residents.

Meanwhile, Russian military commanders beefed up their troops in Chechnya's southern mountains in anticipation of possible rebel incursions from Georgia, Interfax reported Tuesday. It quoted a federal military official as saying that about 250 rebels led by warlord Ruslan Gelayev had moved from Pankisi closer to the Chechen border.

Also Tuesday, police in southern Russia launched a massive hunt for two border guards who disappeared over the weekend and are suspected of killing eight comrades, a police spokesman said.

Privates Oleg Khismatulin and Nikolai Bazhkov have been missing since Saturday, when officials found the bodies of eight other border guards on duty in the mountains in the republic of Ingushetia.